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Senate Democrats Aiming to Introduce Gas Package by Midweek

After settling a dispute between Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Democrats continued to hit roadblocks last week on the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, pushing debate into next week. A senior Democratic aide said the Senate is likely to take up the FAA bill again on Tuesday. If the Senate is able to move past the aviation bill, legislation on flood insurance will be next on the schedule. A Republican aide criticized Democrats for bringing the aviation bill to the floor before a real compromise had been reached with lawmakers. News reports earlier in the week said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) forced the aviation bill to the Senate floor to give negotiators on the farm bill more time to talk things out. “This is what happens when you bring a bill to the floor prematurely. The Senate was not ready and this is what happens,” said the Republican aide. “They are doing the work now that should’ve been done before.” Nevertheless, Senate Democrats took all of the final week in April brokering deals with fellow Democrats to avoid further delay on the aviation bill. Then, Reid angered GOPers after disallowing further amendments. Republicans balked at the Reid move and threatened to block passage. Throughout the week, Republicans complained that the FAA bill contained too many provisions that were unrelated, namely the provision that would grant $5 billion to the Highway Trust Fund. Republicans sought to offer amendments that would strip the bill of those items. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), the chief Republican architect of the FAA bill and ranking member on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommitte on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security said she and her Republican colleagues planned to offer numerous amendments that would take out the “extraneous financial provisions.” The FAA bill also faces opposition from the White House. Aides to the president sent a letter to lawmakers saying they would recommend President Bush veto the bill if it contained language that forced airline companies into binding arbitration upon the failure of initial talks between the companies and labor unions. Democrats scoffed at the threat and geared up for a fight with the White House, but had to tone down their rhetoric when Members within their own Conference couldn’t agree. Durbin and Baucus were seen arguing in the hallway over pension language that required some airlines to pay billions of dollars into their retirement funds over a five-year period. Durbin offered an amendment with Hutchison to strip the pension language from the bill. Reid eventually took the pension language, which also was supported by Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), out of the bill late Wednesday evening. On Thursday, it became obvious that some Senators had moved beyond the airline bill when they took to the floor talking about the high gasoline prices. Democrats had planned to unveil a gas package Friday, but negotiations are incomplete. One senior Democratic aide said lawmakers plan to unveil the package midweek and might bring it to the floor as soon as the end of next week. There is bipartisan support for a pause in stocking fuel in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — making it the most likely item in the package. However, nothing else has been decided. Complicating matters, President Bush doesn’t support that idea. Hutchison said that she and many of her Republican colleagues are interested in the idea and are likely to support it as a short-term fix for high gas prices. What will not be making the gas legislation are some things that many Republican Senators support, including domestic drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or a gas-tax holiday, which has backing from presidential candidates Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has recently been pushing for a windfall gas tax, as oil companies such as Exxon and Shell have reaped enormous profits from the increase in gas prices. But a windfall tax is unlikely to make it into the package, as Republicans argue that the tax on profits would force oil companies to increase prices even more. In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has requested that the Federal Trade Committee investigate whether oil companies are manipulating prices or fuel supplies for their own profit. It is unclear whether such a proposal would make it into a Senate package.

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